CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly described the previous analysis of the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania by the Cook Political Report.
It took a while, but Republicans are finally coming home for Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, putting him squarely in striking distance of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) in the state’s Senate contest.
Over the last month, national and Pennsylvania Republicans alike have grown increasingly bullish over Oz’s chances as attacks on Fetterman’s campaign strategy amid his stroke recovery and stance on crime have helped vault Oz back into contention.
Recent polls show just as much. In less than two months, Oz has chopped Fetterman’s lead nearly in half, with the lieutenant governor now leading by roughly 4 percentage points. Additionally, Republican operatives and strategists across the board are convinced Oz will get the job done, a far cry from only weeks ago.
“I feel a lot better about Pennsylvania than I did four or five weeks ago. That’s for sure,” one Pennsylvania-based GOP operative told The Hill, adding that there was a “panic” that set in amongst Pennsylvania and national Republicans and extended into the world of former President Trump.
According to a recent Fox News poll, 83 percent of Republicans are now behind Oz, up from 73 percent from the previous poll taken in July. Not coincidentally, Fetterman only leads by 4 percentage points in the recent survey compared to 11 points in the summer, and the pundits have taken notice.
However, some top Republicans still worry about Oz’s ability to fully bring Republican voters completely into the tent.
“His biggest problem is to get conservatives to vote for him. They don’t like Fetterman, but they’re not sure about Oz either,” former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told The Hill in an interview. “He’s not really running as a conservative. He’s running as someone who will make things work in Washington,” he continued, likening Oz’s pitch to Keystone State voters to those made by the state’s former Republican Sens. Arlen Specter and John Heinz.
Perhaps the biggest part of Oz’s independent outreach, however, remains his attacks against Fetterman on crime, an issue that has galvanized the GOP base not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country.
Oz’s latest ad, released on Friday, charges that Fetterman’s plan would “release murderers into our community,” pointing to his work as head of the Board of Pardons during his tenure as lieutenant governor.
“That’s a prescription for pain,” Oz says in the 30-second spot.
Keystone State Democrats are well aware of the damage the attacks are inflicting the former Braddock, Pa., mayor. One senior Pennsylvania Democrat told The Hill that the ads are “working” and conceded that the issue is a “big liability” for Democratic chances to win back the seat. Other state Democrats are concerned that there wasn’t enough pushback early to combat the aerial assault.
“I thought [Fetterman] was a little late responding to the ads,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) told The Hill. “It was a decent response, but it was a little late.”
Looking ahead, the planned debate between the two candidates is slated for Oct. 25 in what is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated moments of the midterm cycle. For months, Republicans heaped pressure on Fetterman to take the stage alongside Oz in the aftermath of the stroke he suffered shortly before the May primary, and did so with a significant amount of success. According to GOP operatives, part of that is due to Oz’s background as a cardiologist and his ability to speak on the subject with a level of authority.
However, Democrats sense opportunity as expectations for Fetterman heading into the showdown have been lowered significantly. Rendell argued the messaging surrounding the debate could turn out to be a “double-edged sword” for the GOP if the lieutenant governor puts on a “solid performance.”
While the debate stands as Fetterman’s mountain to climb in the final month, Oz has little control over his as state Sen. Doug Mastriano’s (R) gubernatorial campaign continues to struggle and has shown little life against state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D). In survey after survey, Shapiro leads by double digits and is outspending the GOP nominee by a 60 to 1 margin on the airwaves, potentially creating a significant drag on Oz’s chances.
Some Republicans don’t think Mastriano’s sagging campaign will cause much of an impact, and are quick to note that the Senate contest is the race that is on top of the physical ballot instead of governor and that straight-ticket voting is no longer a practice in the state. However, others remain alarmed.
“The big issue is Doug Mastriano isn’t introducing Doug Mastriano to the voters. Josh Shapiro is,” a second Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist said, pointing to the $31 million in ad reservations Shapiro has made as of late last week.
“If Doug can get his race into single digits, then Oz has a good fighting shot,” the strategist continued, taking aim at Mastriano’s unconventional strategy of campaigning outside the 12 to 15 most populous counties that will likely make or break his chances. “You don’t want to be campaigning in places where there are more deer than voters.”
Notably, outside of the nearly universal belief that Mastriano will lose, the expectations for him are all over the map on the GOP side. Some strategists speculated that he could win as little as 40 percent, opening the door to a complete blowout, while others believe Shapiro’s margin could be as small as 5 percent. When asked how much of a drag Mastriano could be on Oz, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) demurred, sidestepping the gubernatorial contest.
“People are going to evaluate each race separately and Dr. Oz is in a good position to win,” Toomey recently told The Hill. The incumbent senator has endorsed Oz but has not done so for Mastriano.
Other Republicans were less charitable.
“Establishment Republicans don’t want Mastriano out there doing stuff. They don’t want him out there making the news,” a third Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist said. “They want him to stick with this 40 days of fast and prayer because it means he’s not out there doing stuff. They want him to bury his head in the sand.”